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Malta's monuments: The art of combustion

As the ‘Flame’ and its marking of a new political milestone fuels debate on the haphazard planning of monuments in the capital city, experts warn how Valletta risks being trivialised

yannick_pace
Yannick Pace
29 March 2017, 8:00am
‘A Flame That Will Never Die’ by Valerio Schembri was commisioned by Heritage Malta on request of the Office of the Prime Minister
‘A Flame That Will Never Die’ by Valerio Schembri was commisioned by Heritage Malta on request of the Office of the Prime Minister
The seemingly haphazard way in which monuments are being planned and erected in Valletta could trivialise the significance of other monuments and diminish the capital’s surrounding architectural heritage, several experts who spoke with MaltaToday have warned. 

Last week, the government unveiled a new monument at Castile Square, to a flurry of mixed reviews. In a statement, the Office of the Prime Minister said the monument, called A Flame That Never Dies, honours the “Maltese nation’s long road to taking control of its own destiny after centuries of foreign rule.” It added that this journey had now culminated in Malta finding itself “behind the wheel” of the Presidency of the European Council. 

Much of the debate about the monument has been centred around its price tag – the sculpture reportedly set taxpayers back some €112,000 – as well as whether people find the installation to be to their personal liking. Art experts, however, are raising other issues. 

“Do we need to have monuments in prime locations in Valletta, for events or vague symbolisms that can by no stretch of the imagination be deemed milestones in our history?” asked Conrad Thake, an architect and history of art professor at the University of Malta.

“There is a risk of trivialising the significance of a monument if we erect countless of them in our public spaces.”

Architect Valerio Schembri
Architect Valerio Schembri
The lack of consultation with experts remains a major gripe.

“It is explicitly evident that the experts are not being consulted or, are being ignored. We have people trained in such areas of knowledge and yet more unnecessary and incredibly costly sculptures are being produced. That such standards are accepted is the worst part of it all,” says Nikki Petroni, a PhD candidate studying Modern and Contemporary Maltese art. 

While it may seem somewhat intuitive that multiple monuments spread over a relatively small area could diminish the importance of each one, if the space housing them is designed in a holistic manner, multiple monuments can easily “coexist”, Petroni says.

“Upper Barrakka is a wonderful example of how several monuments and sculptures from different periods, showing a variety of subject matter and idioms, can shape a public space,” she says. 

Similarly, Floriana Mall Gardens host a sizeable number of monuments, while managing to maintain a “harmonious” layout unlike Castile Square, says Petroni. “[It] seems to be developing into a space for haphazardly-placed mediocre monuments.”

Marked by the powers that held sway: Valletta’s Hastings Gardens honour the memory of Alexander Ball with this majestic mausoleum erected under British rule
Marked by the powers that held sway: Valletta’s Hastings Gardens honour the memory of Alexander Ball with this majestic mausoleum erected under British rule
“I suspect we are erecting monuments à la mode to prove to ourselves and the international community that our authorities and artists are on a par with the rest of the world,” argued broadcaster Dr Charles Xuereb, whose interest in the spatial politics of monuments is given wider berth in his book ‘France in the Maltese Collective Memory – Perspectives, Perceptions, Identities after Bonaparte in British Malta’.

Xuereb says that since Malta gained independence from the British Empire, successive governments have erected monuments in Valletta almost at random. “[The] Sette Giugno [monument] for example is now its rightful place [in St. George’s Square] whereas on the periphery it was an insult. Inversely, in Valletta we have a mausoleum for Alexander Ball, who exiled [Mikiel Anton] Vassalli, our foremost political hero, but we do not have a monument for Vassalli in his own country,” says Xuereb.

“Similar to Vassalli, one could also mention La Valette, the founder of the city who, since 2012, has been relegated to an area where he is dwarfed by all around him,” he added.

The flame monument has elicited some controversy because of its abstract nature, which necessitates some explanation to understand the message it attempts to convey. This raises the question of whether abstract works can effectively commemorate a person or event. Thake insisted this reasoning misses the point. 

The Maltese patriot Mikiel Anton Vassalli ‘only’ marks the gateway to his native Haz-Zebbug, taking pride of place on a roundabout on the motorway
The Maltese patriot Mikiel Anton Vassalli ‘only’ marks the gateway to his native Haz-Zebbug, taking pride of place on a roundabout on the motorway
“One cannot arbitrarily state that figurative models should be preferable to abstract forms,” he says. “Any kind of monument should be able to engage with the viewer on an emotional and intellectual level. The measure of the success of a monument, be it abstract or figurative, is the level of engagement and stimulus that it elicits from the viewer.”

Similarly, Giuseppe Bonaci, a senior lecturer in history of art at the University of Malta, says that “commemorating an event or a person can be beautifully achieved in whatever style or form, as long as it is brilliantly done.” 

For Xuereb, the use of abstract art in public spaces requires one “to gauge the culture of the community rather than that of the artist, or whoever is paying for the monument.”

“The physical addition of a monument quickly becomes part of the new environment but the level of the social message it parts is also relative to how much it expresses the general sentiment of the public it is addressing,” he argued. 

The politics of monument building

The Laparelli-Cassar monument pays tribute to the  architects of the capital city but does its ‘abstract’ composition relate naturally to the subject?
The Laparelli-Cassar monument pays tribute to the architects of the capital city but does its ‘abstract’ composition relate naturally to the subject?
A monument can be defined as a building, statue, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event. “They shape public spaces and define our common surroundings,” Petroni says. “Their purpose is to interfere with our historical, political, and physical perception of space and to make us think,” she added, emphasising the importance of monuments having both “gravity” and beauty.

They also reflect the identity of a nation. Schembri Bonaci says monuments are an essential part of the “myth-sustaining process which is essential for all national identity”, or as Petroni put it, “the embodiment of collective memory.”

They offer a glimpse at the core of a nation – its culture and genius, strength, seriousness, and political maturity can all be gleaned from the type of monuments a nation erects, Schembri Bonaci says.

“The act of building an important civic or public building, and also that of erecting monuments is a political act in itself,” Thake says. “The powers that be, including those of the past, have all sought to establish permanent reminders of their existence. It is not accidental that Valletta, our capital city, is the main locus for all these monuments.”

Thake argued that through the erection of monuments, urban space becomes a battleground in which permanent and tangible reminders of personalities, perceived achievements, events and symbolic mythological statements on the state of the country’s nationhood are established. “I believe Valletta is currently suffering from an overdose of these,” he says, while questioning the extent to which recent monuments engage with the public.  

Jean de Valette, founder of the Capital City, occupies a corner that was recently uncovered during the reconstruction of City Gate
Jean de Valette, founder of the Capital City, occupies a corner that was recently uncovered during the reconstruction of City Gate
Xuereb went further, explaining that multiple monuments erected within limited space are normally planned by “despotic regimes” in a bid to brainwash the public into loyalty or submission. 

“In the old Soviet Union, this was rampant and most of these monuments were pulled down after its fall. In Valletta, this is also very evident with some eight British royal insignia erected when Malta became a colony at the start of the 19th century. They were intended to help the community forget the strong presence of the Knights and inculcate loyalty towards the Crown,” he says. 

While some question the relevance and purpose of recently erected monuments, it could also be argued that a great number of today’s iconic monuments and landmarks around the world faced similar criticism when they were first erected. 

Schembri Bonaci acknowledged that more often than not, monuments are met with strong criticism, but pointed out a crucial difference: this criticism was always rooted in clashes between different schools of artistic thought and an underlying philosophy for or against that opinion. It was not confined to a simplistic argument of whether people “like or don’t like it”. 

Politics of topography: Queen Victoria (with pigeon) surveys all from the centre of Pjazza Regina in front of the Biblioteca
Politics of topography: Queen Victoria (with pigeon) surveys all from the centre of Pjazza Regina in front of the Biblioteca
Likewise, Petroni says that judgment of the installation should not revolve around whether one likes it or not. 

“The piece [A Flame that Never Dies] is nonsensical, it says nothing and bears no meaning despite the attempts to impose a subject on it. And yet a despicable amount of money was spent on it. What about our existing but forgotten heritage, those buildings and objects which require renovation and conservation?” asked Petroni.   

A Flame That Never Dies was commissioned by Heritage Malta. Questions sent to CEO Kenneth Gambin were unanswered at the time of going to print. 

yannick_pace
Yannick joined MaltaToday as a journalist in 2016. His main areas of interest are politics...
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